At Long Last, the FDA Defines “Gluten-Free”

A uniform standard for the increasingly common food labeling term “gluten-free” was announced last week by the Food and Drug Administration. Here’s what you need to know if you follow a gluten-free lifestyle.

Wheat Field
Wheat Field / Lauren Tucker / CC BY 2.0

For the estimated 3 million people with celiac disease (an auto-immune condition that requires vigilant avoidance of gluten), the agency’s long-awaited definition of what the words “gluten-free” on food labels actually means is a welcome piece of the food safety puzzle. Of course the agency did have some rules for gluten-related labeling guidelines in place, but it’s taken years to get to this point—there now is a standard definition for the labeling of gluten-free foods.

What the gluten-free labeling term means

The standard definition, to be used across the food industry, means that in order for a food to be labeled as “gluten free” it must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. In addition, any manufacturers that use some alternate labeling terms or claims must also ensure that their products meet the standard. These alternate terms include:

  • “no gluten”
  • “free of gluten”
  • “without gluten”

Manufacturers have a year after the rule is published to bring their labeling into compliance with the definition. No doubt there are already some foods that meet this definition, as it has been used as a cut-off point in some industry circles for a while. The FDA states that the 20 ppm level was decided upon because that’s the lowest level that can be consistently detected using current technology. This level is also consistent with gluten-free food labeling standards set in other countries.

But that’s not all…

Foods bearing a “gluten-free” label must also meet the following qualifications (which were already in place as regulations):

  • They must contain no type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains.
  • They cannot contain an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten.
  • They cannot contain an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten.

Foods such as bottled spring water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs can be labeled “gluten-free” if they inherently don’t have any gluten.

If you’re highly sensitive to gluten…

It’s important to realize that a “gluten-free” label on a food does not necessarily mean that there is NO gluten in that food. For people who are highly sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, some foods labeled “gluten-free” could still bring on symptoms. Several organizations that provide certification for gluten-free foods have criteria more stringent than those of the FDA. Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA), and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) have standards that allow from 5-10 ppm gluten in food products that they certify as gluten-free. The Celiac Sprue Association also requires that oats not be present in any of the foods (even gluten-free oats).

Want to know more about gluten?

Watch our free, one-hour webinar, Good Golly, Gluten!, on the rising popularity of gluten-free foods to learn more about how this trend is influencing our eating habits.